A while back, I went on a ‘craft-building’ book buying binge. Over my next few Wiley Wednesdays, I’ll be talking about what I took away from each of them. One repeating pattern I found was that several of the books had lists of other handy reference. At the top of almost every one of those lists was Strunk & White’s ‘The Elements of Style’ – a short text that packs a real wallop, and definitely the place to begin. In short, I wish I had read this book three years ago. It would have saved me a lot of time.
William Strunk Jr. was an English professor at Cornell in the early 1900s. He taught from his own ‘little book’ – a concise text he wrote to cover the basics of grammar and composition, originally published in 1869. At 105 pages, including forwards and index, it truly is little. But little is too small a word. E. B. White (Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web) was a student of Mr. Strunk, and decided much later in his career that Strunk’s ‘little book’ could serve a much broader audience. The text was revised in 1935, 1959, 1979 and 2000 – and everything in it still bears repeating. In his original introduction, Mr. White describes the book as, “seven rules of usage, eleven principals of composition, a few matters of form, and a list of expressions commonly misused . . .” All of these are centered around one theme, that edict pounded home by Strunk himself:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
I won’t run through every rule here. They are neatly numbered and stated with very clear examples in the full text, and I highly recommend you pick up the book and read it from cover to cover several times, as I did. The full text is also available online. Instead, I’ll skip the grammar stuff, and cut straight to the elements of composition I wish I had learned by studying this text, rather than the hard way (i.e. sludging along cluelessly until someone pointed it out to me the twelvth time).
13. Make the paragraph the unit of composition. To some, this may come naturally. To others, it is something pounded into our heads by 6th grade teachers. Still others struggle. But it’s quite simple, as laid down by Strunk. Writing is a series of thoughts. How we compose and gather these thoughts either facilitates or hinders how the the reader understands. In summary: one idea per paragraph. Introduce it. Add detail. Conclude or sum up.
14. Use the active voice. Ugh! I can’t tell you how long people were saying ‘that’s passive voice’ before I knew what they were talking about. And finding someone to clearly explain it had me tearing my hair out. In general, passive voice takes the action away from your subject and misplaces it. According to Strunk, the active voice makes for more ‘forcible’ writing. But, examples do far better (from the text):
“I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.” Not, “My first visit to Boston will alway be remembered by me.”
Not, “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard.” But, “The cock’s crow came with dawn.”
In general, when scanning for passive voice, the words would, could, was and were are indicators. However, this is not to be confused with the progressive past tense: “I was walking through the woods.”
15. Put statements in positive form. Basically – don’t describe what is not happening, describe what is happening.
Not, “He was not very often on time.” But, “He usually came late.”
Not, “She did not think that studying Latin was a sensible way to use one’s time.” But, “She thought the study of Latin a waste of time.”
As you can see, the affirmative is usually more direct and concise. It also sounds less ‘wavering’. Be definite in what you say. Oh, wait . . . that’s number 16.
16. Use definite, specific, concrete language:
Not, “A period of unfavorable weather set in.” But, “It rained every day for a week.”
Usually, this means you will give more specific details. If you are trying to make a general statement, do so, but make it concrete and definite. At least knock out two of the three:
Not, “She seldom enjoyed visiting her aunt.” But, “He hated visiting her aunt.”
17. OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS. This is by far Strunk’s most important point, linking back to his main theme. Omit needless words. Omit needless words! You’ll find this easier at the edit phase. I don’t recommend having this mind set when you are drafting, because when you haven’t written anything, one could argue every word is needless. But once you have a draft, you’ll find there are a HUGE amount of ways to rephrase to use less words or to simply cross out the ones you don’t need, without losing meaning. Some examples of classic needless words are often: that, because, as to, for. Also stall phrases, such as: started to, began to, almost, was going to, etc. Strunk lists several examples of his least favorite needless phrases, which you’ll find very useful. Cut to the action, and . . . OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS.
I think that is a good start, and a fair chunk of some of Strunk’s most important points. As stated above, I highly recommend reviewing the text in its entirety. Adding these feathers to your editing cap will most certainly help you to write concisely, without losing meaning.